This month the Creative Research Center at Montclair State University filmed a one-hour virtual webcast, The Scientific Imagination - Where Do Ideas Come From?" as part of its Second Annual CRC Symposium.
The video, available here, presents a panel discussion on creativity and imagination, discussed among scientist educators working at MSU, to foster innovation, creative learning, and adaptive expertise in research and in the classroom. The discussion is moderated by Dr. Neil Baldwin, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of the Arts and director of the CRC. He interviews Dr. Jennifer Adams Krumins, assistant professor, Department of Biology and Molecular Biology; Dr. Cigdem Talgar, director of Research and Programs and acting director of the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL); Dr. William Thomas, director, New Jersey School of Conservation; Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, assistant professor of Physics in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; and Dr. Meiyin Wu, associate professor, Biology and Molecular Biology and director of the Passaic River Institute.
For educators, an essential struggle in any discipline lies in exciting our students’ imagination, getting them to think creatively about a problem or concept, and asking them to adapt to new knowledge and variable information in order to think more critically and deeply. This video highlights ways in which this is being done in the classroom, what role models and sources of inspiration have served our educators, how important engaging students in world views and creative thinking is to change, innovation, and adaptability, and much more. The conversation takes us into the specific profiles of each scientist educator, leads us into their world of development and experimentation, and models how they integrate their passion into their research and teaching.
I highly recommend that you watch this video, and share with your colleagues and students. There are numerous ways to approach creative thinking and imaginative learning; here are several of them packaged into an active and informative discussion.
Our last Teaching Circle meeting, I decided to try a more guided discussion, and asked guests to bring their worst teaching moment to share with the group. I have to admit, I think we probably had worse ones than the ones we actually shared, but that’s okay, because the point was two-fold:
The reason for sharing our worst stories first is so we can – right out of the gate – admit that we are all human and that every educator has moments, or days, possibly a full week, when they don’t, exactly…shine.
Sharing our stories was cool, and I mean that in the sense of Chester Cheetos-like cool, because we laughed at ourselves without feeling our stories diminished us at all as educators. How we handle these moments became the take-away from this meeting, and how they can form, and inform, us as educators became teaching philosophy fodder. Because this is the point: none of us is perfect and it’s important for us, and our students, to know that. Don’t lose your cool! Students love it when they can bond with you over a little SNAFU in class, come to your assistance, or otherwise pull together as a group to solve a problem (I’m quite surprised technology implosions didn’t feature much more largely in our discussion – we did have one instructor discuss her experience with full system failure though). Though some students may view it as an opportunity to dismiss you as an authority with knowledge to share, most students will rally around you if you show a sense of humor and some humility about life’s little jokes.
Here is a brief rundown of the funny and humble stories featuring times we felt less than great about our teaching or inter-action with students, with each of us presenting different moments revealing our unique yet 0h-so-common teaching bonds. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, how well you know your topic, how utterly fabulous you are as an instructor, you will at some time have the teaching gods frown upon you. I began by owning up to a particular lesson in a high-school economics class, where my students ended up schooling me on a simple math equation. Don’t remember the context, the exact lesson, or the math I couldn’t do that day, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment. We then talked about how to handle these situations; I handled it badly by NOT addressing it with my students and pretending I wasn’t a complete math ignoramus, but it was okay, because eventually I could look back and recognize how I should have handled it, and how I would be better prepared for these moments in the future. Something to write about in my teaching statement, which I have done. Nothing says, “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them” than an honest story that reveals what we don’t know about teaching and what we want to learn, yes?
Next came stories of language barriers – especially relevant for our international scholars and professors who struggle with accents and pronunciations in front of American students ( and for the record, I myself have practiced pronouncing many words that I don’t speak regularly but are difficult for any English speaker; for example, homogeneous is often mispronounced, still can’t confidently say the names of Tacitus or Aeschylus; just about any word with a lot of vowels…); “things students say in class” that catch us unawares -forcing some quick thinking and instant ability to react wisely! (“Oh, prof, I won’t be here for that class; I’m going to Coachella.”; “Oh, okay. <long pause> Have fun.” = awkward!); lapses in basic knowledge (see my math freeze above), inability to answer a student’s question coherently, razing by jerky students who know you are “fresh” – this WILL happen to you as a new or younger teacher. We heard a story about a mathematician of renown, possibly still teaching, but the story is of old, who simply shrugged off his calculation errors in front of students, and put the onus of knowledge on the students (that is, he let them figure out the problem; he already knew how to do it, why should he do it for the students?). Would that we all had that confidence and aloofness, yes? We discussed our frustration when students don’t “get it” and how we struggle to make meaning for them – is it us? them? How can we make it clearer? It seems so OBVIOUS! We decided that we – yes, us teachers – are of the homo sapiens species after all, thus prone to error. We were able to turn these mini-crises into really pivotal and critical teaching and learning moments, ones that we ALL share as educators.
We also talked about the Flipped Classroom, Google+ versus Facebook, whether or not we should interact with students on social media sites (that was a resounding NO as I recall, but we did agree that setting up professional “teacher/colleague” profiles were a good idea when you did want to create a space online with your students). We ran out of time before we got to some writing exercises for tying all of this into our teaching philosophies, but I hope we can get to that next time.
For our next meeting, I plan to guide us to the flip side of the teaching coin- our best teaching moment – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and we pictured Cate Blanchett playing us in the Oscar-winning movie of 2026 on inspiring teaching stories that bring a tear to the eye (dream sequence)…so, I thought, let’s end our semester with some positive stories and experiences, and what they can tell us about our teaching, about our students, and how these experiences (good and bad), are integral parts of being awesome educators.
We’d love to hear from you out there: what was your best or worst teaching moment? What did it teach you about yourself as an educator? Join us!
Last week at our first Teaching Circle meeting of the semester, we focused on student expectations and failure. There are many sub-categories that fit these inter-connected topics: grading, attendance/absenteeism, why students don’t try harder, school policy versus individual instructor policy, why students resist change/innovation, and much more. We talked for nearly two hours about these central issues, and how they might be addressed in the classroom.
The biggest issue, and one coming under increasing public scrutiny, is student failure. This is a landmine issue for teachers, because, while we want to set high standards and clear expectations for our students, we also don’t want them to fail and some of us even dread the fallout emotional battle that comes with student failure. John Rosemond would say that we are experiencing the products of the “psychological parenting revolution” (which bled into our teaching methods) of the 1970’s and 80’s. This makes us afraid of hurting the feelings of our students, and by extension, afraid to let them fail. For related articles, read the below:
Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Mickey-goodman/are-we-raising-a-generati_b_1249706.html
Teaching Students to Fail Better: http://www.iste.org/learn/publications/learning-and-leading/issues/Feature_Teach_Your_Students_to_Fail_Better.aspx
Tales of Spectacular Failure: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/06/146880518/try-and-try-again-3-tales-of-spectacular-failure?sc=tw
Married to this idea of failure are grading policies and student absenteeism/attendance policies. Nostalgically we discussed our undergrad and graduate days, when attendance was not a requirement or only loosely monitored. Back then, if we wanted a good grade we had to make it to class, make sure we had the notes, or meet with our professor to get/turn in assignments, which were always set ahead of time by the syllabus. That is, our success or failure was totally in our hands. Now, student attendance has become connected with performance: just by showing up, to some instructors (and certainly in the minds of many students) counts as “effort.” Should we grade participation? In addition, the focus on engagement and group work requires that students be present to actually engage. Or does it? How might we engage students in and out of the classroom? Finally, university policies have changed such that they are more and more requiring that attendance be mandatory and that instructors revise their individual policies to reflect university mandates on attendance.
So we have many dynamics at play here: effort, attendance, student failure, and the various methods of considering all these factors when planning our courses. This, in addition to considering how we foster a creative, active, and engaging learning environment and address these, among myriad other, teaching and learning issues. Phew. Enough for you?
We turned our discussion to requiring attendance versus engaging students. Several instructors offered their personal policies on attendance: some don’t even take attendance and give it no reward or punishment, some have very strict attendance policies, some use a middle ground of points, percentages, and grade scales tied to attendance and participation. There is no perfect way, though we discussed how we might create a learning environment that students want to be part of, are compelled (intrinsically) to be there and thus help us put less emphasis on attendance and more on engagement. None of us wants to be the attendance police and spend class time checking off a list of names. We want our students to be there because they realize they need to know what we have to teach them. But we are frustrated and timid about not setting a specific policy for students to follow (what happens if they aren’t compelled to show up? Few of us have the confidence in ourselves and our students to be so hands-off concerning attendance).
There is no one way of doing this, but one professor talked about tying in-class assignments and scaffolding foundational content and concepts with performance expectations. He sets up assignments so that a student cannot move on to the next level without completing the prior level, and to do that, they must come to class. He gives them the defined milestones and a calendar to achieve them, assignments that move them through these levels of knowledge, assessed by conceptual tests, essays, and final projects. Though in some cases a student may try to “catch up” near the end of a unit and thus rush through material, in general he finds that students move through the material in concert and with enthusiasm. I speculated that in some cases it is the relationship with the instructor (trust, respect) that allows for looser “policies”; what works for one instructor may not work for another without building trust and respect.
We spent some time discussing innovation, ways we try to implement new scholarship on teaching practice and student learning, and of course, technology that can help us do that. We acknowledged that ofttimes students display a distrust of, and at times outright dislike, new ways of learning. This may be because they are used to performing and succeeding in a defined way - the lecture, taking Powerpoint notes, working in groups to complete a project - and when we ask them to think or learn in new ways, they are skeptical or resistant. I think this may be, as most teaching methods are and as I noted above, because of their trust in their instructor; we all know instructors that experiment all the time in their courses and are enthusiastically engaging their students, so why can’t we? So we segued to building trust in students: demonstrating that we know what we’re doing, setting expectations to that emphasize that it is okay to try something and have it bomb (even us teachers have failures!), that ultimately, we all want to continue learning. We talked about building in small successes and achievements that lead to bigger successes and investment of the student in reaching those goals. Ultimately, we were intrigued by the idea that we let our students experience failure in order to give success a more genuine sense of achievement on their part.
by Steve Markoff
Accounting, Law, and Taxation
Montclair State University
As a good friend of mine (and excellent teacher) Joe Hoyle of University of Richmond says, “If you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.” Sometimes it is oh so easy for us to forget what it’s like to be sitting in one of those chairs facing the front of the room, listening to someone spout knowledge about a topic that he or she has been an expert in for perhaps 30 years or more. Being in charge is a very comfortable feeling. Sometimes, the only way to understand what it’s like is to literally walk a mile in their moccasins. So, that’s what I did, and I made some very interesting observations not just about my students, but about my own teaching that I feel are worth sharing.
I’ve always loved learning as much as teaching. I rarely read a book or watch a TV show unless there is something I can learn. So, one thing I did to segue into full-time university teaching, was to go back to school and take a college course or two. Of course, I first chose something that I always loved and wanted to learn more about – astronomy. I took this course for credit and for a grade, not auditing. Of course, it did not take much in the way of teacher motivation to get me to tear into the textbook as I was super interested. Yet I found it kind of odd to be sitting on the other side. I would wonder “why did the professor say this or skip that?” I felt some degree of anxiety about raising my hand to ask a question if I wanted to engage in some additional learning. Oh, and let’s not forget the stress of studying for and taking the two midterms! I was so nervous to walk up to the front of the lecture hall to get my Scantron card in front of all the students when the professor called my name. And the heartbreak of getting a 98% and immediately turning to the question I got wrong to see if it was a mistake! I was determined to get 100% on the next midterm and the final. And while it was interesting to emotionally and physically get back into what the undergraduate students are facing, something was missing, and I knew what it was – I was taking a course in a subject that I really loved and had wanted to learn even more about for decades! Preparing for lectures and reading every single word in the textbook, along with the optional software, was an absolute joy. I figured that, in order to get a real picture of what a typical student goes through, I was going to do what they have to do - take a course in a subject that I had no background in, had little working knowledge of and which I really didn’t find interesting in the least. So I chose a physics course. Accounting and physics, what a combo!
The joy I had felt opening up my textbook to do the assigned readings suddenly became laborious work. I kept asking myself “why was I even doing this?”. Instead of being prepared ahead of time, I rushed at the last moment to do the assigned work for class. In fact, I even showed up once without having done it. I considered not going to class that day.
I became easily confused as the textbook presented what seemed to be a never-ending group of formulas. The lectures didn’t help either. The professor proceeded to turn the lights down as we listened and watched the PowerPoint. Oh my, staying awake was very hard. If I had some popcorn, I would be all set! When I raised my hand to ask a question, I felt almost silly. Was I the only one with this question? Why did others seem to understand this and not me? The professor’s explanation rarely helped, but I didn’t want to hold up the class. I remember being so confused that I wouldn’t even ask a question.
When it came to the test, I wasn’t wondering if I got 100% either. Finding time to study seemed difficult – everything else seemed more important. It’s amazing how many other things there are to do when the alternative is studying for a class in a subject that isn’t interesting and that you don’t really want to learn.
If all this kind of sounds familiar, but from the other side of the podium, take heart. From this exercise – by being a student – the one without the knowledge – I came away with some very important things that have improved my teaching:
I now look at my students with much more awareness. I learned a bit more patience if they don’t grasp the concepts immediately, and that I have to be flexible in this area. I learned to respect them for what they ARE, and see them as they CAN BE. And I’m a lot more careful about putting together the learning steps and trying to be aware about how far apart they are, and what order they are in.